Aspectfully Speaking

In a recent blog post, Wil Wheaton writes about how he learns lines for his scenes, figuring out what the character wants and needs to get him as an actor to the right place. He goes on to identify three recent characters and their motivations:

As I said on Twitter recently, I realized that Doctor Parrish’s favorite thing in the world is “I told you so.” Evil Wil Wheaton’s favorite thing in the world is, “Ha! Gotcha, Sheldon Cooper.” Cha0s’ favorite thing in the world is, “I know something you don’t know, and never will know, because I am so much smarter than you.”

When I read this, I had myself a genuine AH HA! moment (earning many glares at the library), because I finally understood what all those insufferable, infuriating, brilliant FATE nerds have been yammering about for the last year or so. It’s the character through-line, the how, the why, the what for. Oh yes, it’s the Aspects. Now, for those out there who figured this out from the very first moment, please grant me a little grace, because I can be a real moron when I put my mind to it.

All this time, all these articles, all this peripheral material (notice I’m not saying, ‘All these games,’ since I have yet to actually play one of those FATE games, but that’s not as important as you might think), and with Wil Wheaton’s post, the clouds finally parted and the sun didst shine down and lo, it didst alight on my brow. Previously, I got it, but I didn’t really GET it. I understood it, but I didn’t really understand it.

Mowing Down the Understanding

The problem lies with the kind of learner that I am, which has become painfully clear just lately as I’ve had to figure out how to start and run a riding lawnmower. All my life, I’ve used a standard, cheapy-deepy, WalMart Special push lawnmower, which works like this: you shove this lever-thing to RABBIT, you push the little bubble on the side of the engine a few times, you yank fruitlessly on the ripcord until your shoulder dislocates, and then you go back inside and watch baseball. Simple and predictable.

Recently, I moved to a rental house with six acres, which doesn’t exactly lend itself to a push mower, assuming I didn’t want to have to quit my job and spend every daylight hour of spring and summer mowing my stupid yard. No, I’d have to figure out this absurdly complex riding lawnmower, which seemed to have dozens of buttons, levers, wheels, dials, and switches. It didn’t feel so much like a grass cutting implement as the cockpit of a jumbo jet. I reviewed the starting instructions, which covered multiple pages and included several IF YOU DON’T DO THIS, YOU AND YOUR FAMILY WILL DIE HORRIBLY type warnings.

Reading through this manual, I simply didn’t get it. Sitting on the mower and trying to follow the instructions, I simply didn’t get it. It was only after trying it again and again (and, by the way, again) that the process of starting it, and even DRIVING it, started to click inside my head.

Grokking and Gaming

I am a tactile learner, no question, but even bigger than that, I’m a comprehension learner. To understand a thing, I have to do the thing, but also, I have to SEE the thing. If a process makes sense in my head, in my language, I’ll be able to do it every time, regardless of the number of steps or the complexity of the concept. This is how it is with the mower, and this is how it is with character aspects.

Of course, my learning ability isn’t just about learning a thing and knowing a thing. There are lots of other elements that inform my understanding, so I’ll have to also give a tip of the hat to the 4E version of Gamma World. In order to play my characters properly, especially with the randomness of Gamma World, I had to figure out the defining characteristic, the “how’d he get this way” and the “what’s he like,” the… oh, what’s the word again? Oh yeah, its Aspect! If I had to describe the character to a semi-interested party, how would I do it?

  • Gamma World Example 1: Giant Cryokinetic. That’s a 10′ tall snowman, complete with giant broom for melee.
  • Gamma World Example 2: Photonic AI. That’s got to be Luxo, the hopping lamp from the Pixar movies.
  • Gamma World Example 3: Electrokinetic Rat Swarm. Here’s a sentient bundle of socks crackling with static electricity.

This was just another brain-boot that opened up my understanding a little more, enabling me to look at the character I just created for Encounters–a sentinel Druid of Spring–and ask myself, “What does he look like? How does he act? What’s important to him? What would it be like to meet this guy?” Abruptly, all the pieces fell into place and I found myself staring at Feral, a huge, hulking guy, looking a lot like Sabretooth from the first X-Men movie, always traveling with his big grey wolf, Cain.

Without having ever played this character, I knew all kinds of things about him, and I feel like I could run him immediately and understand how he would interact with others, how he would act in a city, how he would respond to an enemy threatening someone in his wolf pack. Oh yes, I’m ready to play this character, and it’s all because of Wil Wheaton.


  1. alexandra says:

    It’s the depth of the gaming pursuit that always astounds me. I can’t pretend to have any idea of what goes on, but every time I read Dixon’s descriptions, it’s the depth that is so very impressive. Well, in a word, “Wow”.

  2. Saracenus says:

    I had the same ah-ha moment in the current season of D&D Encounters (DDE) with my human vampire. It started with his name, Zlatrazar which I generated using the Serbo-Croatian module from the Everchanging Book of Names name generator program.

    At the table I just fell into a cheesy faux-Eastern European accent and Zlatrazar came alive. Suddenly, I was from a long line of “vampire hunters” and I am a obviously a really bad one because I got turned on my first mission with the family. I am a worse vampire and as Zlat doesn’t really know what he is doing he tries to get by on false bravado and but deep down his insecurity to inform his actions. Which leads to really interesting results when I blow my religion check for undead (if I bother to roll for it) and I spout off completely incorrect information on how to kill them with a confidence that everyone seems to believe.

    This of course will lead to some interesting confrontations when my wife’s Warpriest of the Raven Queen starts contradicting my obvious ignorance.

  3. Nice! This comes just as i’m beginning to explore the world of FATE.

    I follow everything you’ve said, but one thing i can’t figure out: Why a picture of the singer from Metallica?

  4. Dixon Trimline says:

    alexandra: Thank you very much 🙂

    Saracenus: Generating names from other languages is an excellent idea (I’ve used transliterated Hebrew in the distant past), but using an accent is downright brilliant. Man, I wish I had that ability. Every accent I attempt just sounds like me doing a very bad accent. I love the idea of building in bluster and complications to a character.

    Shimrath: I’d love to hear your thoughts on FATE. As I mentioned, I still haven’t had the chance to take it for a spin, but it looks like something I’d enjoy. And the line about the picture completely cracked me up. Thanks for that! I wonder if James Hetfield knows he’s related to Wolverine.

  5. I’ve been pushing the other legs of the SW tripod I’m in right now on Aspects; specifically, replacing Hindrances with Aspects so that character growth (we’re building up to novice characters, starting as 10 year olds) won’t be defined by taking negative elements.

    I’ll link them here in hopes that your Ah-ha moment can transfer!

  6. You know, it’s funny, but this is just about the best description of Aspects I’ve ever read anywhere. Bravo!

    And that paragraph about the lawn mower cracked me up; that’s been my experience with push mowers for most of my adult life. 😀

  7. Dixon Trimline says:

    @Seth: Please let me know about your experience. This is just another example of a concept that makes no sense until it does, like HTML or talking with women. I’m assuming on that second one, as I still haven’t figured it out.

    @Jonathan: I really, really want to play a FATE-based game, if only for the opportunity to play what I’m learning. It feels like something that I’d enjoy, but for now, I’ll just have to apply it in the corners of my gaming life where I can. I’d suggest that we raise a glass for push mowers everywhere, but I’m not sure I could get my arm up with a dislocated shoulder.